Warfare and Society: Archaeological and Social Anthropological Perspectives

By Ton Otto; Henrik Thrane et al. | Go to book overview

11 The Impact of Egalitarian Institutions
on Warfare among the Enga:
An Ethnohistorical Perspective

Akali taiyoko ongo kunao napenge.
The blood of a man does not wash off easily.

POLLY WIESSNER

The importance of war as ‘prime mover’ towards hierarchical political complexity has long been a matter of debate. While there is little doubt that warfare was a significant force in the political dynamics of centralised societies and in the rise of the state, its role in acephalous societies remains unclear. Some argue that war as an agent of cultural selection weeds out less adaptive cultural institutions and technology, thereby selecting for efficiency and complexity (Carniero 1970). Moreover, because individuals will not willingly give up sovereignty without coercion, warfare is one likely mechanism for increasing social hierarchy (Ferguson 1990: 11). Others contest the role of warfare as a ‘progressive’ force in acephalous societies on the grounds that personal involvement, weak organisational structures, shifting alliances, diverse motivations of participants, and inefficient technology make warfare ‘unproductive’ for political evolution (Brown 1978; van der Dennen 1995; Fried 1967; Meyer 1990; Montagu 1976; Naroll and Divale 1976; Otterbein 1970; 1994; Turney-High 1949; Wright 1942).

From existing evidence, it is not easy to determine if and how warfare contributes to generating complexity in acephalous societies. Archaeological indicators such as skeletal damage, weaponry, fortifications, or depictions of combat in art are usually sparse for tribal societies, sometimes indicating little more than the presence or absence of war. Most ethnographic studies of war, excellent though they are, have been conducted in tribal societies that were undergoing rapid change owing to direct and indirect effects of contact with western cultures (Ferguson and Whitehead 1992). Moreover, ethnographic studies of war lack time depth, lending them to the conclusion that war has a homeostatic function (Rappaport 1968; Hallpike 1973; 1987). Ethnohistorical studies of tribal warfare have their own difficulties, for example, interpretation of oral records and biases of narrators. However, they still hold considerable potential for exploring the relation of war to political developments because they contain far more information on the objectives, courses, and outcomes of war than do archaeological studies, and yet have the time depth not available in most ethnographic works.

The objective of this paper will be to use ethnohistorical data from the Enga of Papua New Guinea to explore the role of warfare in pre-contact sociopolitical change over a period of some 250 years following the introduction of the sweet potato and prior to first contact with Europeans. Three questions will be addressed: (1) In acephalous societies like Enga, what is the impact of egalitarian institutions

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